Oxford’s college drinking dilemma

Mitchell Byrne analyses the discrepancy between bar revenues and emergency-service calls in Oxford


Across Britain, students are drinking less and things are looking healthier. But something is going wrong in our colleges.

Recent reports suggest the 2012 rise in tuition fees has had a knock-on impact on draught beer sales in student unions. Stressed by debt-levels, we apparently became less willing to drink the nights away. Last month the Office for National Statistics removed nightclub entry fares from the basket of goods used to assess inflation. Data from the same institution shows even binge drinking is down 40 per cent on a national level since 2005.

Long the butt of the French slur, ‘the British drink too much’, it seems we are righting our course. The trend is downwards, and alcohol companies are acutely aware of this. The Heineken advert whose strapline reads ‘Moderate Drinkers Wanted’ is valid testimony. There has been no ostensible stimulus, no nation-wide crackdown, no spike in alcohol-related arrest-rates. There is a shift towards healthier living and drinking less is probably part of it.

In Oxford, however, the matter is unclear. Certainly as far as colleges can tell, students drink less now than before. One Turl Street college vendor noted the college bar had seen profits halve in ten years, though the services it offers have doubled. Many colleges have promoted non-alcoholic events during Freshers week, clearly not eager to give the impression being a student at Oxford is all fun and games. In October one former public school boy was overheard reminiscing about the relative freedoms of boarding school.
It’s easy to see how this trend might seem like good news to the college. First of, when alcohol is expensive, students will drink less of it. Secondly, a student who is not drinking will be working. Thirdly, a working student is a happy student. Conclusion: Norrington Table ascension.

If students drink less in the bars, though, why has the number of alcohol-related incidents involving emergency services risen? In the third episode of Ross Kemp’s Britain, the presenter offers a keen insight. On the question of Britain and alcohol, three conclusions emerge. One: when alcohol is very cheap, people drink more of it. Two: when the gap between pub prices and shop prices is significant, people always buy cheaper. Three: the bulk of dangerous drinking is done behind closed doors.

Perhaps, therefore, students are not drinking less than before. Perhaps they go to supermarkets and buy cheap alcohol and consume large quantities of it in their rooms where they do not have to pay college prices, and cannot be turned away when they’ve had one too many. Perhaps they leave their rooms, to have a swift one in the college bar before going out, feel a bit sick on the way past the pool table and vomit all over the floor, before the college has served them, before they pay the nightclub fare.
It seems likely this is precisely what is happening; if so, it comes with dangers.

The college bar is the safest place to drink, particularly if you’re 18 and new to alcohol. Conceivably, there is a problem here which must be corrected before it is too late.



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